WORKS FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE COLLECTION, SOLD IN PART TO BENEFIT TWO NOT-FOR-PROFIT INSTITUTIONS IN THE FIELDS OF SCIENCE AND MUSIC
From October 1881 through the early months of 1882, Renoir toured Italy, visiting cities such as Naples, Rome and Venice, accompanied by his model and mistress Aline. Considered a rite of passage for artists of his generation, this trip exposed the artist to new sources of inspiration which would invigorate his traditional Impressionist style with classical techniques and perspectives powerfully evinced in the present work. Describing Renoir’s stylistic innovation achieved in Italy, Barbara Ehrlich White writes: “Here Renoir initiated his unique blend of Impressionist and Classicism, the direction for his future artistic development. He does not renounce Impressionism, but combines it with classicism, creating a new style, Classical Impressionism. This synthesis became a major direction of his artistic explorations in the paintings of the next thirty-eight years” (B. Ehrlich White, Renoir: An Intimate Biography, New York, 2017, p. 113).
This stylistic fusion is notably at play in the present work, which depicts a group of figs and a single melon, all carefully placed on porcelain ware in a triangular, geometric arrangement. The work also belies a consciousness of Renoir’s contemporaries, particularly Paul Cézanne (see fig. 1). “Renoir was trying to give his figures more solidity and his compositions more structure at the same time as retaining Impressionist light and colour. In Italy, he hoped to learn how to acquire the ‘grandeur’ that Cezanne had achieved, and it is likely that it was Cézanne’s style that led Renoir to Italy. Renoir was attempting to emulate the classical and sculptural qualities of Cézanne’s art, but in his own way” (ibid., p. 112). In the present work, Renoir has similarly concentrated on the relationships among heavy cylindrical outlines of the melon, figs and the porcelain bowl, and has experimented with a play on space and perspective by slightly concealing the second bowl of figs behind the melon while maintaining a pyramidal arrangement. Yet Renoir remains true to the softness of his original Impressionist palette and the overall luminosity of the composition.
Nature morte au melon, amandes et figues is distinguished by its relation to a work by Gustave Caillebotte, Melon et compotier de figues (see fig. 2), which Marie Berhaut suggests was likely painted side by side with the present work during the summer of 1882 in Trouville, while Renoir was staying with Mr. and Mrs. Paul Bérard in their Wargemont chateau near Dieppe. While Caillebotte’s still life is defined by its traditionally Impressionist brushwork and its more prevalent use of shadow and light, Renoir's canvas is marked by the clarity and solidity of its composition, more reminiscent of Cézanne’s later works.
Renoir's delicate attention to the ceramic elements in the present composition recalls his time as a young apprentice in the porcelain-painting workshop of the Lévy brothers on the Rue des Fossés-du-Temple in Paris (see fig. 3). The detailed execution of these blue and white ceramic teacups, vases and bowls evoke his earliest experience within the artistic trade, before he transitioned to the more "heroic" medium of oil on canvas. But even in Renoir’s most significant, groundbreaking canvases, the artist would pay subtle homage to the still life—among the liveliest dances, the most intimate portraits or the happiest gatherings, one can easily spot a subtle yet colorful interaction between glasses, fruits, silverware or porcelain ware (see fig. 4). These examples, along with the present work, attest to the still life’s importance as a vehicle for Renoir’s own artistic experimentation, as well as the artist’s dedication to capturing the splendor of these ordinary yet beautiful moments in daily life.
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